Schoey’s Grand Final preview: A tough one to call

So, we’ve got the showdown of the overseas coaches Kristian Woolf and Adrian Lam, the retiring superstars James Graham (all being well) and Sean O’Loughlin, and the highest-placed teams over what has been a strange old Super League season.

Friday’s Grand Final is going to be different – not least because it’s at an empty KCOM Stadium rather than a packed Old Trafford – but it’s a battle of two fierce rivals packed with talent and I’m looking forward to watching St Helens and Wigan getting stuck into each other

One thing is for sure – there should be no stage fright, because both sides have got plenty of experience of big matches!

We had a top-quality Challenge Cup final, and I really hope we get a top-quality Grand Final to ensure we end a difficult year on a high and reward all the effort from all the clubs that has gone in to getting the season to this stage.

The Hull-Wigan semi-final had its moments of controversy – and for me, the sequence of events which changed the momentum of the match in the Warriors’ favour should have ended with the Black and Whites in possession rather than a penalty to the Warriors.

But credit to Wigan, because having been given a break by the decision to penalise Josh Griffin for patting Oliver Partington on the head following an error, which was ironic given that Partington has done the same thing in the past, they made the most of it.

I also thought the Warriors got away with a couple of forward passes at key moments, but there’s no debating the organisation, calmness and professionalism they showed to brush away Hull’s early lead and run out very convincing winners.

Wigan aren’t always the most exciting side to watch, but you have to respect the way they keep going through the processes and doing the basic things really well to lay the platform for their more creative operators to strike.

And while much of the spotlight rightly shone on Sean O’Loughlin in what was his final match on home turf, I think we should give praise to a young lad who is starting out on his career and on the evidence of Thursday night, has a very bright future.

Harry Smith was excellent at stand-off, and with Sam Powell ruled out, I thought Lam’s decision to switch Jackson Hastings to hooker and play the 20-year-old alongside Thomas Leuluai in the halves was spot on.

It was a big test for Smith, especially since he hadn’t played that much first-team rugby for Wigan before this season, but he showed a cool head and slotted in pretty seamlessly, and it was good to see him rewarded with a try.

As for Hull, they started strongly enough, but when Wigan started to move through the gears, they had no real response, and too many of their potential game-changers, such as Jake Connor, Carlos Tuimavave and Marc Sneyd, had too little involvement.

Was that the Last post for Andy as head coach? Time will tell, but I’d be surprised if there isn’t someone else in situ by the start of next season, although, as I suggested last week, whoever takes the job might have to accept having the man who went before still on the staff, which could be tricky.

Meanwhile, it’s disappointing that Chris Kendall was one of the major topics of discussion both during and after the match. The best referees are the one you don’t notice, and there were too many controversial decisions and therefore too many mentions of his name.

In the second semi-final, with both Michael McIlorum and Joel Tomkins rightly suspended, Catalans were always going to be up against it in the face of such quality opposition as St Helens, but they really didn’t help themselves with their lack of discipline.

Steve McNamara’s men will have won themselves few friends with such an over-physical approach, but it’s hard to have too much sympathy for them, and by having a player yellow-carded in each half, they gave themselves far too big a hill to climb.

That head injury for James Graham as a result of a stray elbow from his team-mate Jack Welsby was a blow for both the retiring prop and his team, however, and hopefully he’ll get the all-clear so that he can finish a stellar career with a Grand Final appearance.

It’s a tough one to call, because the sides are so evenly matched, but I’m going to put my neck on the line and say St Helens.

French is my Man of Steel

This could be a big week for Bevan French.

The Wigan fullback is preparing for the Grand Final, and I think he could well go into the big match as this year’s Man of Steel.

As you’d expect, he’s up against some great players in his club-mate Liam Farrell, his opposite number at Saints Lachlan Coote, Aidan Sezer, who has made such a big impact at Huddersfield, and Castleford’s ever-reliable hooker Paul McShane.

My only moan is that Alex Walmsley didn’t make the list of contenders, because for me, he’s been the best prop in Super League this season and St Helens’ most consistent player.

From the five in the running, it’s French all the way for me.

The former Parramatta man is everything you want in a modern fullback; solid in defence, calm under pressure, good in his positioning, quick off the mark, creative in possession and accurate with his passing.

His awareness, vision and execution are all first class, and he really hits the mark as a second stand-off.

Happy Giants

It’s hardly surprising that Huddersfield fans are happy.

As predicted, the Giants have appointed Ian Watson as head coach, and he’s also been able to bring in his trusted fitness specialists Greg Brown and Carl Foulstone, who have been credited for the work they did alongside Watto at Salford.

I know from my own time at Huddersfield that Ken Davy is a great owner who loves the club, is desperate for success and backs his coaches, and it will be interesting to see what the squad looks like in a few months’ time.

Watto can also call on the experience of Andy Kelly, who has played a big part in establishing an Academy system that has produced a string of talented players.

The challenge for the Giants’ hierarchy is to create some stability, because for whatever reason, there has been too much turnover on the coaching front. They now need to provide the opportunity for the new man to produce a side that can mount a genuine challenge for honours.

Barrow for promotion

Like many people, I’m concerned by the suggestion, which seems to be gathering pace, that Bradford are the most likely side to take the vacancy in Super League.

To be honest, given their record both on and off the pitch in recent years, I think it’s laughable that the Bulls are even being considered.

Should they get the nod, the reaction would be something else, and it would be a huge kick in the teeth for Featherstone, Leigh, London, Toulouse and York, who have all invested in a bid to bring themselves up to the level needed.

If Bradford got in before them, the money men at those clubs would surely be considering their continued involvement.

As for the side that will move up from League 1 to fill the space in the Championship, I’d go for Barrow.

I think Steve Neale has done well as Chairman, they know what’s needed in the second tier, and the club has forged some good links with the local community during lockdown.

Cumbria is a proper Rugby League county, which has been neglected for too long.

It would be great to see Barrow, and in due course, Workington Town competing alongside Whitehaven in the Championship.

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